Avoiding Unforced Errors in the Boardroom

Avoiding Unforced Errors in the Boardroom

We’ve enjoyed a fantastic season of sport over the past few months: an exciting end to football’s Premiership season; the success of our domestic teams in Europe; England’s Lionesses reaching the semi-finals of the Women’s World Cup; a brilliant Wimbledon tournament; the Cricket World Cup; the Netball World Cup…. the list goes on and on.


It made me think about that sometimes overworked analogy of what can business learn from sport.

I first heard the term ‘unforced error’ when I was watching my son playing football. A close friend of mine, a former professional player, said that my son hadn’t needed to make a pass that was intercepted by a defender and that it was an unforced error. The concept fascinated me and for then on, I became aware of how many times I heard the term in other sports – tennis in particular.


So I have been thinking about why businesses, and those in the boardrooms, sometimes make ‘schoolboy errors’; mistakes that could have been avoided or in sporting terms an unforced error.


The definition of an unforced error is:

  1. (in sport, especially tennis) a mistake in play that is attributed to one’s own failure rather than to the skill or effort of one’s opponent.
  1. a careless or foolish mistake.

We all know that Serena Williams has dominated women’s tennis for a number of years. Without taking anything away from the fantastic performance of Simona Halep who won the Ladies’ Wimbledon final in straight sets, how much of the defeat came from Serena’s own hands? She made twenty-six unforced errors compared to Simona’s 3, is there something we can learn here?


“Serena Williams denied that nerves or the pressure of chasing down Margaret Court’s record of 24 grand slam titles had anything to do with her stunning 6-2, 6-2 Wimbledon defeat by Simona Halep.


“Williams looked far from her best as she sprayed 26 unforced errors compared with only 17 winners against Halep, and the American has now lost three grand slam finals since winning her 23rd major title at the Australian Open in 2017.


“However, she said it was the brilliance of her Romanian opponent, who inflicted one of the heaviest defeats of her career, that had been the biggest factor in the one‑sided result.”

From the Guardian, Saturday 13 July, 2019.


When someone is starting to play tennis for the first time they will find virtually every shot difficult. They’ve not learned the skills and techniques that are necessary to play the game well. As a result, it would be unreasonable for their coach to expect that they won’t make mistakes.


As they learn more, and practice more, their coach will aim for them to achieve consistency in their play. We are all human, and as human beings we will make mistakes. Physical tiredness and our mental attitude have a major impact on our decision-making skills and can cause both forced and unforced errors. Our goal should be to reduce the unforced errors to a minimum.


Let’s think about examples of unforced errors in business. One that springs to my mind is Gerald Ratner’s ill-conceived joke during his speech at the 1991 Institute of Directors Annual Convention. In front of an audience of 6,000 at the Royal Albert Hall, at a time when things were going extremely well for his company, he decided to make a joke about a couple of their less expensive products to lighten the speech. You can watch that moment, and his reaction twenty-six years later, here https://youtu.be/6xs6MTwMTbo.


Nothing and no-one forced his hand to say what he said. It was his decision and his alone. The results for his company were catastrophic. Shares in his company collapsed and it lost him 2,500 shops and his fortune.


So how do we avoid unforced errors? Well, firstly we need to recognise that a forced error is when the opponent’s good play has caused you to make a mistake. In business, the actions of a competitor or a change in the business environment may cause the board to make wrong decisions. This is the nature of business and boards will put in mitigating actions and strategies to recover from forced errors.


Another example of what we may consider to be a corporate unforced error happened at technology giant Apple. In 1983, the company hired John Sculley, who had been the president of PepsiCo, to be its CEO.  Apple thought Sculley with his considerable marketing success at Pepsi, was the right person to take the brand forward.


His management style clashed with that of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs and Jobs left in 1985 after the board failed to back his ideas. Sculley then became President of the company.


Things went well for a while, but Sculley came under pressure and resigned in 1993. Apple had two more CEOs before Apple bought NeXT – the company that Jobs had founded after leaving Apple – bringing him back to the company he had co-founded. He formally became CEO in September 1997 and Apple went on to achieve massive global success in bringing new disruptive technologies to market. That’s an example of how businesses can recover from what might be considered an unforced error.


Join me here next month to read Part 2 where I will take you through my top ten examples of unforced errors in the boardroom and what we can do to prevent them.


Until next time…